You've likely seen projections, including one from this blogger, than Dallas can create as much as $25 million or more in cap space by restructuring some of their high-dollar veteran contracts. That sounds very attractive on the surface, especially for a team that has spent several years being forced into frugality by past spending sins. There is no question that Dallas will do some restructuring, but perhaps they need a little more balanced view than what others have suggested.
One player that is guaranteed to have his deal reworked, and rightly so, is left tackle Tyron Smith. He is still just 25-years-old and one of the best in the business; a fixture at his spot for as long as he's healthy. Dallas will certainly move money on Smith's contract and have absolutely no reason not to.
Beyond Smith there is at least one red flag on any of the remaining restructure candidates. Let's look at those in more detail and see if the added cap room is worth the additional commitment and risk involved.
The next most likely to be restructured is defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford. He has five years left on a $45 million contract and is still just 26. The red flag on Crawford is that his performance dropped off in 2015 after getting the new deal. He had five sacks despite being the full-time starter. Comparatively, Henry Melton had five sacks in 2014 despite starting just three games and dealing with injuries. It was assumed that Crawford would blossom as the three-technique tackle in Rod Marinelli's scheme and fell woefully short of expectations.
Dallas is likely going to bank on their original analysis of Crawford and hope that improvements at defensive end and in the secondary will open up his game. However, if they have any concerns about Crawford, restructuring his deal could only prolong the mistake. Next year he counts $9 million against the cap and only creates $6 million in dead money if released, which can be spread over two years. Dallas has a decent escape there if they want to preserve it, but I anticipate that they will double down on Crawford and focus on improving the talent around him.
Let's now take a look at Dez Bryant's contract. No sooner does he sign the big extension than does Bryant suffer an injury-plagued season. Turning 28 in November, Bryant's physical style of play means he may not have the longevity of some receivers. Could Dallas be worried about still paying Dez franchise-player money if he can't stay healthy? Do they want to preserve the option to cut ties if needed?
Dez will count about $16 million against Dallas' cap in 2018 and 2019. As currently structured, Dallas can cut him with $8 million in dead money in 2018 and just $4 million in 2019, when he'll be 30-years-old. I could see Dallas opting to leave Dez's contract untouched this year so they can how well he bounces back next season. If he's back to franchise form then they can use it to create space for the 2017 offseason. If not, then they've kept their options open.
Jason Witten has two years left on his deal. It's hard to see a scenario where Dallas doesn't let Witten play out that contract, so I could see them pushing all of his guaranteed money into 2017 to create about $4 million in space for this offseason. His age is a slight concern but Witten has been freakishly durable and the Cowboys likely won't be worried about committing to him for two more seasons.
Sean Lee is an intriguing case. He has four years left on his deal and a lot of wiggle room to clear cap space. However, Lee's awful history with injuries is a major deterrent for Dallas. Though he's coming off a fabulous 2015 performance, a return of health problems for Lee could push Dallas to release him next offseason. They would only be liable for $3.9 million in dead money off of a $9.9 million cap hit, giving them significant savings and letting them move on at a key defensive position.
I think Dallas will take the same approach with Lee that I said with Dez, seeing how 2016 plays out before making any contract changes. If Lee can put together back-to-back seasons of good health and Pro Bowl play then the Cowboys will have a lot more confidence to pull the trigger on a restructure, but even then you couldn't blame them for lingering hesitation.
Lastly, we have to take a look at Tony Romo's contract. Romo is signed through 2019 and Jerry Jones is happy to tell you that they think Romo has many good years left in him. There's no chance that he'll back that up by redoing Romo's deal, though, until they see how he comes back from the 2015 injuries.
Even as it stands Dallas is probably stuck with Romo's contract until at least the 2018 offseason. At that point the dead money drops to just $8.9 million (compared to $19.6 million in 2017) and they can find a way to stomach that if needed. How will two more seasons affect Romo's body, one that already seems to be breaking down? Dallas will have to find out the hard way and can't afford to prolong the suffering.
Today's Cowboys, with Jason Garrett, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay holding more influence than past staffs of Jerry Jones', are more fiscally responsible and big picture oriented than in the past. A past front office probably jumps at the chance to clear all this money and go hard in free agency, looking to maximize the current window of opportunity. Given the age and health concerns of some of the players we just mentioned there is certainly temptation to go that route now.
My best projections are that we will see restructures on Tyron Smith, Tyrone Crawford, and Jason Witten. I'm on the fence about Dez Bryant and can really see them going either way. I wouldn't expect it with Sean Lee and am entirely sure they won't do anything with Romo.
Dallas has learned the hard way about mortgaging the future to try and win in the present. It worked in the 1990s but has cost them dearly at a few points since. They have the potential to make a smooth transition from the Romo-Witten Era to the next generation with a solid infrastructure. They need to leave themselves financially flexible to keep their young players around for the next quarterback whenever he takes over, or to keep the talent around Romo strong enough that perhaps he could pull of a late-career championship like we just saw from Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
No matter what the endgame is for Romo, Dallas should maintain the same financial philosophy; stay balanced and avoid as many long-term entanglements as you can. Some players, like Tyron Smith, are worth that kind of commitment. But how many times have we seen teams, and the Cowboys especially, burned by being overly loyal? There's a reason that the Patriots stay in contention (aside from the cheating) and it's because they never put loyalty to one player over their long-term goals and financial outlook.
The last few years make it seem that Dallas is on that course. The hard part, especially as desperation creeps in, is to stay on it.
Leighton Vander Esch To Top Rookie Season With Pro Bowl Trip
Dallas Cowboys' rookie Leighton Vander Esch has done enough to prove every single doubter wrong. When Roger Goodell called his name during the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, many in Cowboys Nation rejoiced at the thought of having a young linebacker for a defense surrounded with uncertainty. However, many analysts doubted the draft pick. For a lot of people (sadly, I include myself in this category), the pick should've been used on another player. For most, despite acknowledging his raw talent, Vander Esch wouldn't be able to provide the Cowboys with an instant impact player. Ah, well.
After a remarkable season, Vander Esch (a.k.a. Wolf Hunter) has earned a spot on this season's second-team All-Pro. When the Pro Bowl voting began, Vander Esch was snubbed from the ballot itself. It didn't took the NFL long to realize their mistake and add the Cowboys' linebacker to the list. Despite missing the cut at first, Vander Esch will be heading to Orlando to play in this year's Pro Bowl on January 27th.
The former Boise State Bronco will be replacing Carolina Panthers' LB Luke Kuechly, who won't be participating because of an injury.
Vander Esch racked up 140 tackles (per Pro Football Reference), ranking third in the league in this category. He finished the season as the fifth best linebacker in Pro Football Focus' rankings.
But numbers aren't really enough to fully appreciate what Vander Esch did for the Dallas Cowboys. A team that was used to seeing its defense break when veteran Sean Lee went down injured, did not only get someone to fill in for Lee. Vander Esch actually upgraded the Cowboys' defense. It didn't matter where the ball went, he was always around when opponents were tackled. His speed and chance of direction allowed him to run sideline to sideline, covering a huge portion of the field.
Along Jaylon Smith, Dallas managed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.
The last time a defensive rookie from the Cowboys went to the Pro Bowl was in 1981, when Everson Walls made the team. Vander Esch is the 11th rookie in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. This year, the rookie will be accompanied by DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
For Cowboys to Beat the Rams, Dak Prescott must Lead the Way
In the NFL wins and losses often come down to quarterback play. That isn't to say that if a team wins, it was all because of the quarterback and inversely, if a team loses that it was all on the quarterback. Teams win or lose games. Generally speaking, however, the quarterback has the highest amount of influence on the outcome of an NFL game. This will be no different for the Dallas Cowboys this Saturday when they take on the Los Angeles Rams in the LA Coliseum. For America's Team to make their first trip to the NFC Championship Game since 1996, Dak Prescott has to have a good game.
This looks to be a good matchup for the Dallas Cowboys offense, which should allow Dak Prescott and the Cowboys to take advantage in certain areas.
A few Rams Passing Game Notes
- The Los Angeles Rams were middle of the pack against the pass this season, allowing the 14th fewest passing yards in the league this season.
- The Rams allowed 7.7 yards per attempt. Dak Prescott is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt since week 10 of the season.
- The Rams allowed the eighth most passing touchdowns in the NFL this season. They and the New Orleans Saints are the only teams in the top 10 of passing touchdowns allowed in the playoffs this season.
- The Rams were 15th in the NFL in sacks, with 41, but Aaron Donald accounted for half of that with 20.5 sacks on the season. No other player had more than five sacks.
- They were third in the NFL in interceptions, collecting 18.
- The Rams allowed the ninth highest yards per completion on the season at 11.8. So on average, every completion went for a first down.
Dak Prescott is playing as well as any quarterback in the playoffs at the moment. Over the last nine games, he's averaging 272 passing yards, two total touchdowns, was only intercepted four times, and was sacked on average 3.2 times per game.
On Saturday night, we saw Scott Linehan put the ball in his hands on a couple designed runs that nearly scored touchdowns. It was an excellent addition to the offense that could help fix the Cowboys red zone woes. Getting Dak Prescott running on some designed runs or quarterback draws could help slow down Aaron Donald and the pass rush.
The Cowboys needed every bit of Dak Prescott magic to overcome a stingy Seattle Seahawks defense in their Wild Card win and they'll need him to step up again this week against the Rams. Every team is going to attempt to take away the running game to make Dak beat you and as he continues to mature, he's getting more and more comfortable doing that. He's comfortable with the big stage and the big moments.
Dak Prescott Since 2016, including playoffs * 15 game-winning drives (Most in NFL) * 13 primetime QB wins (Most in NFL) * 19 rush TD (Most in NFL by QB) #DallasCowboys @dak
No Quarterback in the NFL has more game winning drives, rushing touchdowns, or wins in primetime than Dak Prescott. When we talk about Dak Prescott, we talk a lot about the things that he can't do as a passer and deservedly so, he still has some growing to do in that area, but in the things that you can't objectively quantify -- mental toughness, resiliency, clutchness, will, determination -- Dak is one of the best in the NFL. He's as mentally tough as they come in the NFL and he doesn't let the spotlight or the game situation phase him. He has that stuff that's hard to put your finger on.
The Dallas Cowboys will need more of that on Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Rams can score and can score in bunches and if the Cowboys defense starts sluggish or has an off night, they'll need Dak Prescott to keep them in the game. Even if the defense has a good game, Dak still has to come through in the passing game and on the ground to give the Cowboys a chance to pull off the upset.
The Dallas Cowboys are going to try to run the ball against the Rams on Saturday. That's their identity; run the ball, control the clock, and be efficient in the passing game. Prescott, either with his legs or with his arm will have to make some plays to extend drives and keep the Rams offense on the sideline. He'll need to be sharp in the red zone to convert those opportunities into touchdowns. Settling for field goals against the Rams is how the Cowboys get beat.
This matchup with the Rams looks to set up nicely for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys, yet how things look on paper doesn't mean much when the lights go on and the whistle blows. It's a big stage and it's another win-or-go-home game for the Cowboys (like every game has been over the last nine weeks). In a big game, you need big time players, and the Cowboys have one in quarterback Dak Prescott.
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